Landscape architecture, Ian McHarg and green environmental ethics

Ian McHarg included a chapter ‘On Values’ in Design with nature. It sets out his views on the beliefs and historical ideas which guided his approach to landscape architecture. His discussion is short and unsatisfactory, but many important issues are raised. McHarg’s main themes are:

  • The American landscape before humans arrived was ‘rich beyond the dreams of avarice in everything that man could desire’
  • The pantheism, animism and paganism of the American Indians resulted in ‘a most harmonious balance of man and nature’  with a modest ecological impact
  • The Christian beliefs of the European settlers, derived from the Book of Genesis, had a disastrous ecological impact: ‘the ransacking of the world’s last great cornucopia has as its visible consequence the largest, most inhumane and ugliest cities ever made by man’

McHarg saw Renaissance and Baroque gardens as symbols of the Christian ‘conquest’ of nature and Neoclassical (‘English’) gardens as symbols of a pre-Christian desire to live in harmony with nature. Substantial points underlie his argument but much of his rhetoric is negated by the simple truth that the ‘French’ and ‘English’ approaches to landscape architecture rested on conceptions of ‘Nature’. It is a slippery word with many related meanings. A. O. Lovejoy identified sixty-six different senses in which ‘nature ‘ is used. Landscape architects need to consider which of McHarg had in mind. If you are going to ‘design with nature’, you have to be clear on this point. Though McHarg did not advocate a Buddhist approach to environmental design, his advocacy of ‘Design with nature’ and his use of Lynn White’s argument against the Christian attitude to nature, associates McHarg with Buddhist Environmentalism.

In a print book on City as landscape, I argued that

  • Modernist Design Theory implies a unitary approach. It was  based on the principles of reason and they were taken to apply equally in every land – so modernist buildings tend to look the same wherever they are built
  • Postmodern Design Theory implies a multivalent approach. It was based on a post-structuralist philosophy which argued against over-reliance on reason but failed to put anything in its place. This led to an ‘anything goes’ attitude, freeing architects to do whatever they want wherever they want.
  • post-Postmodern Design Theory should integrate reason with belief

I would regard a sustainable approach to design as post-Postmodern. The rational aspects of the approach should come from science. But the approach also needs to incorporate aesthetics, functions and beliefs which are outside the realm of science. They are matters of ‘personal belief’, except that beliefs are both complicated, contradictory and tend to evolve over very long periods of time. We all have beliefs which can’t be proved by science but which need to change ‘when the facts change’. Some world religions have formulated beliefs into immutable systems. Others are more open and, while I am all in favour of the world faiths becoming ‘environmental’ (as outlined in the Wiki article on Religion and Environmentalism), I think this will be easier and better for Buddhism than for the other major religions. The potential for Buddhism on Environmental Ethics is discussed in an eBook.

Tom Turner

Posted in environmental ethics

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